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California Budget Deal Grants Health Coverage To Children In U.S. Illegally

By Chris Megerian and Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Immigrant children who are in the country illegally would receive public health care coverage in California under a budget deal announced Tuesday by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders.

An estimated 170,000 immigrants 18 and younger could qualify, marking another victory for advocates and lawmakers who have worked to make the state more welcoming to unauthorized residents.

“With this budget, we’re saying that immigrants matter, irrespective of who you are or where you’re from,” said Senate leader Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles.
Democratic leaders also won more money for state-funded child care, preschool and dental care as well as a boost for public universities. But they gave up other spending they wanted and acceded to Brown’s revenue projection, which was about $3 billion lower than theirs.

The compromise — the product of what Brown described as “strenuous negotiations” — paves the way for a new budget to take effect July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. However, some work remains unfinished; the governor called for special legislative sessions to address road repairs and public health care.
The expansion of health care coverage to qualifying immigrant children would begin in May 2016, costing $40 million in the new budget and an estimated $132 million annually after that.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who pushed for the change, described it as a “modest investment” that would prevent children from receiving their health care solely in emergency rooms.

“California once again paves the way while Washington, D.C., continues to create roadblocks for these communities,” Lara said.

The decision was denounced by Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports strict enforcement of immigration laws.

“This is just one more example of California paying huge bills for its continued efforts to accommodate illegal immigration,” Mehlman said.

“It forces the taxpayers to pay money to provide health care that could be going to other vital needs in the state,” he added, “and God knows there are many vital needs going unmet in the state.”

The final agreement was announced a day after the Legislature approved $117.5 billion in general fund spending, $2.2 billion more than Brown wanted. Continuing talks produced a final plan of $115.4 billion, only slightly larger than Brown’s original proposal.

A series of shuffles — such as adjusting a health care cost estimate, adding restrictions to a scholarship program and consolidating some administrative functions — freed up enough money for lawmakers to obtain higher funding in other areas.

“This is a sound and well-thought-out budget,” Brown said.

Under the plan, the California State University system would receive a $97 million increase, and the University of California system would get an extra $25 million, two investments aimed at boosting enrollment.

The blueprint has an additional $265 million — more than half of what lawmakers wanted, for preschool and state-subsidized child care. And payments to dentists who serve poor patients would be restored to pre-recession levels at a cost of $30 million.

The deal also preserves other programs sought by both Brown and lawmakers, including $380 million for an earned income tax credit that would allow the working poor to keep more of their paychecks.

Other legislative proposals were jettisoned.

A broader increase in payments to physicians who treat the needy didn’t make the cut. Neither did a plan to allow women on public assistance to receive higher benefits if they have additional children while on welfare. California currently bars such increases.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who pushed for removal of the restriction, said she was “livid.”

“I guess we’re in the business of picking winners and losers,” she said. “It seems poor people and their children always end up at the bottom.”

Asked how the budget deal was struck, Brown described it as “a gradual unfolding of deeper understanding.”

He didn’t say whether he had threatened to veto the Legislature’s budget.

“I don’t issue threats,” Brown said. “I engage in frank and honest conversations.”

Lawmakers are expected to vote on the agreement Friday. The special legislative sessions, which could run concurrently with the regular session, will be held later this year to address remaining issues.

Brown wants to use the session on health care to revise and extend the state’s tax on managed care plans to comply with federal regulations.

Without the tax, Brown said, California would lose a sustainable source of funding for public health care and in-home care for low-income elderly and disabled residents.

The second session would be geared toward finding new ways to pay for $59 billion in overdue road repairs. Lawmakers have discussed modifying the state gas tax or charging a new fee to fund improvements.

“One way or the other, we’re going to have to find some solutions,” Brown said.

Republican support would be needed to raise taxes or fees.

Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, R-San Dimas, criticized Democrats for considering such moves, saying that even though the state has a surplus, “they are back to the tax well looking for more money.”

(Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Jim Bowen via Flickr

California’s Governor Brown, Lawmakers Plan Short- And Long-Term Strategy On Drought

By Chris Megerian and Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Politicians don’t have the power to make it rain, so on Thursday they tried the next best thing — they proposed showering California’s parched landscape with money.

Governor Jerry Brown and top lawmakers from both parties unveiled a plan that would invest more than $1 billion to improve the state’s water infrastructure, provide emergency assistance to struggling communities and protect wildlife.

“This is a struggle,” Brown said during a Capitol news conference. “Something we’re going to have to live with. For how long, we’re not sure.”

With snow levels in the Sierra Nevada dramatically below normal and California in its fourth consecutive year of drought, lawmakers touting the emergency relief plan acknowledged their limitations.

Assembly minority leader Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto) called the proposal a “Band-Aid,” and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) cautioned that it “will not solve our water emergency.” Lawmakers are expected to act next week on the legislation, which Senate leader Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) said is “just a down payment on our efforts.”

Most of the plan involves spending bond funds that voters already approved or paying money faster than previously scheduled. Some projects may not be completed for years.

Only a small fraction of the proposal announced Thursday — $27.4 million — requires new funding. That money would largely be used to deliver food and water to Californians in the Central Valley.

The proposal also would tap into a $7.5 billion water bond that voters approved in November, spending $272.7 million to safeguard drinking water and support recycling and desalination initiatives.

The biggest chunk of funding in the measure would not directly address the drought. Flood control projects would get about $660 million, included in a bond measure passed by voters a decade ago and scheduled to expire next year.

Brown explained the inclusion of that money by warning of “extreme weather events” that can be caused by climate change.

“All of a sudden, when you’re all focused on drought, you can get massive storms that flood through these channels and overflow and cause havoc,” he said.

Interest groups saw an upside in the emphasis on flood protection in a plan for drought relief. Jay Ziegler, California policy director for the Nature Conservancy, said improving the state’s levees could help capture rain when it returns and replenish groundwater that farmers in the Central Valley have aggressively depleted.

“History shows us that every time California comes out of one of these droughts, it’s with a boom-and-bust cycle of rain,” he said.

Unions praised the potential economic benefits of building new flood controls. Robbie Hunter, president of the California State Building & Construction Trades Council, said “this much-needed investment to upgrade our water infrastructure will provide tens of thousands of construction jobs in the areas most in need and impacted by the drought.”

This is the second consecutive year that lawmakers have considered emergency legislation to address the drought.

Last year, Brown signed a $687.4 million bill for infrastructure projects using previously approved bond money. The measure also funded aid to communities facing acute water shortages.

So far, a third of that money has been spent, said Richard Stapler, spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency.

The latest proposal comes amid growing concern about the state’s dry conditions.

On Tuesday, the State Water Board tightened its watering restrictions, telling urban agencies to limit the number of days residents can water their yards.

The board also warned that it would impose tougher restrictions in coming months if local agencies don’t ramp up conservation efforts.

“We are not seeing the level of stepping up and ringing the alarm bells that the situation warrants,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.

So far, the board has stopped short of mandatory limits on water use. On Thursday, Brown didn’t rule out taking such a drastic step in the future.

“It’s a judgment call,” he said. “But I’ve been asking that same question myself.”

Senate minority leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) emphasized the need for Californians to use less.

“Everyone in the state has to ask the question — how can I conserve more water?” he said.

The state’s water situation is in some respects slightly better than it was a year ago. Precipitation in key watersheds in Northern California is 81 percent of normal for the date. Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, is 58 percent full, compared with 45 percent a year ago. Lake Oroville is half full, compared with 45 percent at this time last year.

Customers of the State Water Project, which delivers supplies from Northern California to Southern California cities, will get 20 percent of their contract requests, compared with only 5 percent in 2014.

But water managers are troubled by the minimal snow in the mountains, which is at 12 percent of average levels, down from 28 percent last year.

The mountain snowpack acts as a natural reservoir that, in a normal year, can hold as much as a third of the state’s water supply, slowly releasing it throughout the spring as seasonal water demand rises. This year that release will be a trickle.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

California Legislature Passes $156.4 Billion 2014-15 Budget

By Chris Megerian and Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Legislature approved a $156.4 billion state budget on Sunday, capping a week of intense negotiations over education, social services and environmental policies.

The spending plan — which includes a $108 billion general fund, $7.3 billion larger than last year — is scheduled to take effect July 1. It funds preschool for children from poor families, increases welfare grants and continues expanding public health care under President Barack Obama’s federal overhaul.

The budget also takes steps to address the shortfall in the teacher pension fund by increasing contributions from the state, schools and school employees.

“The investments in this budget are the most significant in years and in doing these things, we also pay down a good portion of the state’s debt,” Assembly Budget Chairwoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said. “We increase the amount in our reserve funds, and we put California on solid fiscal footing.”

Assembly Budget Vice Chair Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, praised the spending plan for depositing money into a reserve fund, but said it falls short on education, public safety and infrastructure. Republicans also oppose the $68 billion bullet train, and the budget supports the project with new funding from polluter fees.

“This budget simply does not focus on the priorities that Californians have set as priorities of their own,” Gorell said.

The Assembly approved the budget 55-24. It received a 25-11 vote in the Senate.

Other budget-related bills still need to be approved, but the crux of the spending plan now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature. He still has the power to veto items he dislikes.

Lawmakers want to include two new taxes in the budget. The first — 10 cents per pound of fireworks, to be paid by distributors and expected to generate $600,000 annually — is intended to finance the safe destruction of illegal pyrotechnics.

Keely Bosler, deputy director in Brown’s Department of Finance, said the tax was a “small but important effort to address some of the environmental problems and fire risk that are associated with fireworks in this state.” Republicans opposed it, and Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, christened it the “Fourth of July tax.”

The other tax — 15 cents per insurance policy for residential and commercial renters — would fund earthquake research by generating $300,000 a year.

Photo: Amy The Nurse via Flickr